Let’s face it. 2016 sucked. It will go down as one of the cruddiest years in the 50 or so that I’ve walked the earth.
It started sucking right away, with the death of one of my favorite musicians, David Bowie, on Jan. 10, and the death of one of my favorite poets, C.D. Wright, two days later. Maybe it’s not fair to call Bowie’s Blackstar a literary achievement, but it’s an act of deep hubris and generosity and fearlessness that I aspire to as a novelist. So it’s on my list. So too is the first of C.D. Wright’s posthumous collections of poetry, Shallcross, which shows her at the height of her astonishing powers, a book that helps me grieve and shakes me up at the same time.
In February, Peter Straub, one of my literary heroes, put out a collection of his selected stories, Interior Darkness, which I recommend to anyone who thinks the “New Weird” is a new thing. I also discovered the cartoonist Michael DeForge, whose new graphic novel, Big Kids, is a trippy, disturbing, utterly original coming-of-age tale that is still haunting me today.
Also in February: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee died. “Uptown Funk” won a Grammy.
In March, there were primaries, and I read Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot, a dazzling and inventive novel about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. I also read Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, also about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. It was good but upsetting in many many ways. That Thomas Frank is too cynical!, I thought to myself, hopefully.
In April, Prince died.
Prince? Died? 2016, could you be more sadistic?
So I read some poetry, which sometimes helps: The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, who is one of my favorite younger poets; The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay, which has an amazing long poem about the childhood of Neil deGrasse Tyson; Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a very painful and sad book by Ocean Vuong.
Then, I immersed myself in The People in the Castle, selected “strange stories” by Joan Aiken, published by the wonderful Small Beer Press, with an introduction by Kelly Link, and Aiken’s tales were a kind of balm for troubled times. Another balm was the novel Rich & Pretty by my former student Rumaan Alam, which is so funny and beautifully written and precisely described I almost forgot how depressed I was getting.
Summer came at last, and 2016 immediately killed off Muhammad Ali, just to show us it meant business. There was a convention in my home town of Cleveland which I was trying to ignore, so I read A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford, whom Joyce Carol Oates calls “…a beautifully disorienting writer, a poet in an unclassifiable genre…,” and I decided that Jeffrey Ford is an important figure who needs to be recognized more. I read Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams, who is another one of my idols, and I love that she’s still so weird and crazy, after all these years.
Another of my former students, Sam Allingham, sent me his new book of stories, The Great American Songbook, and it is so good! He is super-talented and gives me hope for the future!
And a kind acquaintance, Jacob M. Appel, sent me his new book of stories, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and it was also really good, very Grace Paley and smart and wise (he’s a psychiatrist and a lawyer and a professor and has, I kid you not, seven master’s degrees), and then I realized that I was supposed to blurb his book and I screwed up and forgot to do it, so I was ashamed. I’m sorry, Jacob. Your book is awesome.
And then it was August. I read The Fire This Time, an anthology of essays about race, edited by the brilliant Jesmyn Ward; I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I had a panic attack, and I got some medication — not a moment too soon, because 2016 then decided to take Gene Wilder, and if it wasn’t for Clonazepam I’d still be watching YouTube clips from Young Frankenstein and Willie Wonka, singing along with “Pure Imagination” and weeping, weeping.
Afterwards, I spent a good part of the fall rereading a YA fantasy series by Garth Nix. It was a retreat of sorts, I guess.
One of my fondest memories is reading with my two sons, which we did all through their childhood. They loved fantasy series. Yes, we read all the Harry Potter books, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books. The Chronicles of Narnia.
One series that we were particularly fond of was Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. We listened to them in the car on audiobook: read by Tim Curry in a rich, plummy, intensely funny and felt performance. We were mesmerized by the adventures of Sabriel, the girl necromancer who inherits the heavy weight of her father’s obligation to protect the world from the Dead; her half-sister, Lirael, a lonely librarian who goes on a journey with her magical companion, The Disreputable Dog, finds that she is the only one who can save the world from evil. There is also Mogget, a powerful magical creature who has been imprisoned in the body of a house cat. (Tim Curry’s performance of Mogget is a particular hammy delight.)
In any case, reading these books with my kids was an intense, formative experience, and I was excited to learn that Nix had a new book in the series that was coming out in October. I prepared for it by listening to the entire oeuvre — about 50 hours of audio — and it lent me a crutch to hobble on through our hideous American Autumn. Reading these books again, along with the new one, Goldenhand, brought back a certain kind of joy, a certain kind of honest excitement, to return again to this wide, richly imagined world that Nix has created with such breadth and texture. I got to relive those times I had with my kids, which is not an insignificant thing. My boys are now 25- and 26-year-old men, but for a time, reading this book, I was able to commune with the children they once were.
I was also able to remember the way that certain kinds of books could help in a dark time — I remembered the kid I once was, living in a difficult and abusive and violent family situation — and how books may have saved me.
I worry that this last bit seems stupid and childish and cowardly?
But so what? I lifted out of the dream of those books a sliver of faith in bravery and honesty and courage, and a hope that evil won’t win in the end. I could use the reminder.
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